An attendee holds a protest sign at a public forum event hosted at the Univ. of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, OK
An attendee holds a protest sign at a public forum event hosted at the Univ. of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, OKJohn Francis Peters for Time
An attendee holds a protest sign at a public forum event hosted at the Univ. of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, OK
An oil rig stands in front of the Oklahoma State Capitol building, Oklahoma City, OK
An oil pumpjack, Edmond, OK
Earthquake damage at St. Francis of the Woods Spiritual Renewal Center, Coyle, OK
Marc Crismon, an amateur seismologist, has a personal seismometer on his property hooked up to a laptop where he monitors seismic activity, Glenco, OK
Earthquake damage at Jackie Dill’s home, Coyle, OK
Disaster insurance table at a public forum event, Univ. of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, OK
Cinder blocks left from demolition are piled in Crescent High School’s gymnasium. An earthquake on July 28, 2015 destabilized the gymnasium’s walls forcing the school to repair the entire structure, Crescent, OK
Johnson Bridgewater from the Sierra Club, points to areas affected by earthquakes at a public forum event hosted by Erin Brockovich and attended by notable public figures such as Casey Camp-Horinek from the Ponca Nation. Edmond, OK
Public forum event attendee LaDonna Kanay, yells in protest of what many consider man made earthquakes caused by oil and gas excavation, Univ. of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, OK
Construction crews work on the installation of an underground oil pipeline, Coyle, OK
Ground pollution caused by an oil producing well, Coyle, OK
Earthquake activist Jackie Dill observes an oil well which borders land owned by St. Francis of the Woods Spiritual Renewal Center, Coyle, OK
An oil pumpjack, Crescent, OK
A worker walks up stairs on an oil storage tank, Cushing, Oklahoma. Cushing is a vital transshipment point with many intersecting pipelines, storage facilities and easy access to refiners and suppliers. Crude oil flows inbound to Cushing from all directions and outbound through dozens of pipelines. It is one of the largest oil reserves in the world.
An attendee holds a protest sign at a public forum event hosted at the Univ. of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, OK
John Francis Peters for Time
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The U.S.'s New Earthquake Capital: Oklahoma

Mar 14, 2016

Oklahoma used to be a seismic afterthought, a place with so few earthquakes that in the 1990s it was one of three locations where the Soviets were allowed to monitor American nuclear testing. Today, however, Oklahoma is one of the most seismic places on the planet.

In 2015, the state had 907 earthquakes that were 3-magnitude or greater compared with just one in 2007. Scientists say the growth in seismicity is directly related to the oil and gas industry, specifically the use of disposal wells that reinject back into the earth salty wastewater that comes up naturally during drilling. An estimated 3 billion barrels of water came out of the ground in 2015, and its reinjection has increased pressure on the state’s fault lines, triggering hundreds of tremors in western and central Oklahoma.

Over the last few years, homes have been damaged, property values have fallen, and interest in quake insurance has risen. The state, meanwhile, has been slow to respond. Critics say officials are too reliant on the industry to take any meaningful steps that would put real pressure on the industry, especially at a time when the price of oil has fallen by 70% since 2014. Residents however, are taking action. Some are protesting. Some are suing. Others are even setting up seismographs on their own property to track the quakes themselves.

The state's oil and gas regulatory agency—the Oklahoma Corporation Commission—says that disposal has decreased significantly in the last several months. But many Oklahomans are still concerned that a big one will hit a populated area like Oklahoma City. Of equal concern are the long-term consequences of disposing billions of barrels of water back underground. Some seismologists say that even if all disposal activity stopped in the state immediately, there could be earthquakes for decades.

John Francis Peters is a photographer based in Los Angeles.

Caroline Smith, who edited this photo essay, is a special projects editor at TIME.

Josh Sanburn is a writer at TIME.

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